• Kelley Spainhour

The Surprising Power of the Vagus Nerve

This article is written by Kelley Spainhour, a health and wellness writer. Visit her website at www.spainhourcopywriting.com.


Imagine that …


Your toddler has strep throat and you’re out of sick leave. Your husband is deployed. And, your oven just stopped working.


You’re scheduled to brief the exec team tomorrow at 9:00 AM… you just remembered it’s also your day for morning carpool.


Final exams start in 3 days. Your time is split between your job, visiting your father in the hospital, and studying for these exams. There isn’t enough time.


Do you feel your shoulders tensing up? Is your heart thumping a bit faster as you read those scenarios? Do any sound familiar? Even reading about a stressful situation can initiate a stress response if the imagined situation resonates closely with your reality.



Take a deep breath.


Stress is a normal part of life. It can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress).


Positive stress increases your motivation, energy, and performance. The mild anxiety and pressure you feel before a big race or leading up to a key presentation at work are helpful. Your upcoming wedding or the birth of your child may also produce positive stress – these are thrilling, watershed moments in your life.


Negative stress occurs when you feel unable to cope with your circumstances. The unpleasant feelings of negative stress can be short-term or long-term. It can ultimately lead to physical and psychological illnesses. The death of a loved one, serious financial problems, and injury or illness are examples of negative stress.


You already know that life can be stressful. What you may not know is that there is a fascinating connection between the emotional stress that you feel and your body’s physical response. And, each of us can learn to control this connection.


This mind-body connection is found largely within the work of your vagus nerve. Let’s take a moment to understand the science of how and where the vagus nerve works.






The vagus nerve, so named for its ‘vagabond’ or ‘wandering’ nature throughout the body, is the longest of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that connect your brain to your body. It extends from the brainstem down to the stomach and intestines. It weaves throughout the heart and lungs, and connects your throat and facial muscles. The vagus nerve is part of your nervous system.


Your nervous system is comprised of two parts that alternate rhythmically to maintain homeostasis in your body.


  1. The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ system, is activated when the stress hormone, cortisol, is released into the bloodstream, usually after a stressful event occurs or is perceived.

  2. The parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, is responsible for the body’s return to homeostasis following a stressful event. It decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. It increases digestion, calmness, and relaxation.


The vagus nerve is especially involved in the parasympathetic nervous system which means it plays a huge role in helping you relax. The key to getting the vagus nerve to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is to increase vagal tone.



How to Increase Your Vagal Tone and Immediately Reap the Health Benefits


Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart rate alongside your breathing rate. Take a deep breath in. Your heart rate just sped up. Take a deep breath out. Your heart rate just slowed down. The bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and breathing out, the greater your vagal tone. Increased vagal tone is associated with incredible health benefits, including:

  • Improved blood sugar regulation

  • Reduced risk of diabetes

  • Reduced risk of stroke

  • Reduced risk of heart disease

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Fewer headaches and migraines

  • Less anxiety and depression

  • Better concentration and memory

  • Improved digestion

  • Inflammation relief

Since the vagus nerve plays such a powerful role in your health, it’s worth taking some time to learn a few strategies for stimulating it. It is actually possible to increase your own vagal tone and experience relief from your inflammation, headaches, depression, and anxiety.


Practicing yoga is one excellent way to increase vagal tone. Vagus nerve yoga is the practice of becoming flexible with your nervous system. It balances your need for energy and alertness with relaxation and calmness. Dr. Arielle Schwartz, clinical psychologist and expert in trauma recovery and therapeutic yoga interventions, has written extensively on the mind-body connection and offers several tips for your yoga practice to increase vagal tone. Central to all of these poses is slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Conscious breathing has been shown to increase vagal tone.


To increase vagal tone through yoga, you may also try these techniques:



Half-Smile: The vagus nerve helps control the throat and facial muscles. A half-smile impacts your mood and activates the vagus nerve that extends into your face.


Open your Heart: Postures that open across your chest and throat will gradually increase vagal tone.


Release the Belly: In your own rhythm, move from table position to cow pose to cat pose to release the belly and help your spine relax. Remember, the vagus nerve extends to the stomach and intestines. Actively engaging these muscles will activate the vagus nerve.


Yoga Nidra (Restorative Yoga): Find a relaxing position on the floor. Allow yourself to be aware of your body and breath and feel whatever may come to pass. Meditation, especially compassionate feelings of goodwill towards others and yourself, promote increased social connection and increased vagal tone.


You might be surprised to learn that laughing and singing with friends also has a significant impact on increasing your vagal tone. Check out these additional strategies for stimulating your vagus nerve to relieve inflammation, reduce headaches, and improve your mood.


Exercise

Exercise increases your heart-rate variability (HRV), which is directly connected to vagal tone. It also helps your executive functioning (memory, judgment, attention, problem-solving), improves your sleep and sexual health, and reduces your risk of heart disease and some cancers.


Socialization, laughing

Laughter increases your HRV and socialization reduces cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.


Singing, humming, chanting, speaking

The vagus nerve connects to your throat and facial muscles. Actively using these muscles stimulates the vagus nerve.

Probiotics

Probiotics promote healthy gut bacteria. Gut bacteria improve brain function by regulating neurotransmitters in the brain.


Take a cold shower

Exposure to the cold lowers your sympathetic “fight or flight” response.



Conclusion

The vagus nerve is a fascinating study in the brilliance of the mind-body connection. Conscious breathing and simple habits like laughter can work wonders to relieve inflammation, reduce headaches, and improve your mood and well-being. Our bodies are amazing.

Are you ready to learn more about vagus nerve yoga? Reach out to learn how yoga can have a transformative impact on your physical and emotional health. We’ll be in touch soon!



This article is written by Kelley Spainhour, a health and wellness writer. Visit her website at www.spainhourcopywriting.com.

  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • YouTube - Black Circle

© 2018 by Sally Houston.